The Whole Foods misunderstanding
Editor’s note: This guest opinion piece was originally addressed to “The Basalt Town Council, the Basalt Planning and Zoning Commission, and the citizens of the Roaring Fork Valley.”>I am writing to respond to the recent controversy concerning the conditions upon which Whole Foods has agreed to locate in Willits Town Center. Certain statements contained in our application for an amendment to the Willits PUD plan indicated that the application’s request for additional residential units was a “requirement” of Whole Foods.The idea of increased residential density at the Willits Town Center developed well before my first contact with Whole Foods. As we studied the expectations of retailers and experiences of new town centers, it became apparent that a truly vital and viable town center would require increased residential density. Furthermore, to succeed, traditional street parking would need to be preserved for retail customers and, to the extent possible, we would need to avoid on-grade parking lots that would interrupt the pedestrian friendly experience of continuous shop fronts. Residential parking would need to be under the buildings. To justify the high costs of below grade parking, three-story buildings with additional residential density are needed.In the fall of 2005, we went to the town to request additional density. Preliminary economic studies were done by the town to confirm that additional density would not generate net costs to the town and would ultimately increase sales tax revenues.Then late in 2005, I finally made contact with Whole Foods. Discussions moved slowly and intermittently until in September of 2006 when I formed a partnership with Joseph Freed and Associates, to bring funding and expertise to the build-out and tenanting of Willits Town Center. The new entity, known as Willits Town Center Partners, brought significant mixed-use development skills and an ongoing relationship with Whole Foods to the project.Over the next eight months, my office focused on how to integrate Whole Foods into the Willits Town Center and Freed focused on getting Whole Foods comfortable with our demographics and the opportunity at Willits. In January of 2007, Whole Foods visited with Basalt Town staff and discussed the amendment to the PUD that would be necessary to accommodate their design, site planning, signage and development timing needs. Whole Foods left with the expectation that the amendment was very realistic.Freed began lease negotiations with Whole Foods and my team out here began working closely with town staff on our amendment to our PUD. Our application to the town was submitted well before the lease was signed. I never saw the lease but believed that the increased density had been an expectation of both Whole Foods and us.Because our demographics are very modest, the economics required to make the site feasible for Whole Foods are not only at low lease rates, but require especially high developer contributions to their tenant finishes, 90 to 100 below grade parking spaces as well as 200 spaces on grade. The building is a first class, mixed-use brick building – not a stucco box or a piece of strip development. It is all very expensive and without the increased density, the economics of the transaction risk its feasibility. One can easily call the need for the increased density a requirement of the deal, if not a requirement of the lease. However, now with the benefit of hindsight, I can understand how the statement that the increased density was a “requirement” of Whole Foods, could be viewed as meaning that if the additional density was not approved, the deal with Whole Foods would be off the table. Now that this has come to light, I have learned that the additional density is not a condition of the lease, but is necessary for our venture to offset the additional costs we have committed to incur in order to bring Whole Foods to the community.I’ve been working with the Town of Basalt on Willits for more than 12 years. It has been my absolute commitment and focus, and I couldn’t be more enthusiastic about finally having a Whole Foods. I apologize for mistakenly categorizing the need for additional density as a requirement of Whole Foods. But please understand it was an honest mistake. I’ve been doing this too long, and I’m not foolish enough to think that Basalt’s exhaustive, transparent review process would not uncover any inconsistency or misrepresentation. Please judge my integrity and vision by what already exists at Willits and what it becomes. And judge the appropriateness of this proposed amendment on its merits – Whole Foods, affordable housing above the code requirement, resident occupied housing not required by the code, construction of a bus station along Highway 82, etc.The Willits Town Center was approved in July 2001, and consistently I’ve been asked, “Can we get a Whole Foods?” Against all demographic odds and Whole Foods’ focus on urban areas, we can. We all simply need to continue to work together and address the long-term costs and benefits to the community. I apologize for categorizing what I believed was an expectation of Whole Foods as a requirement of theirs when it is more accurately a requirement to make the economics and town center plan work. So I ask for your understanding and forgiveness if the statements in the application gave the wrong impression of the source of the request for additional density.Michael Lipkin is the developer of the Willits Town Center project in Basalt.
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